WHEN I LEFT SCHOOL, I got a job with the National Bank. As I recall, I loathed every stultifying minute of the 18 months I was there.
When I told the branch manager I’d accepted a job as a cadet patrol officer in Papua New Guinea he frowned and said, “Are you sure you want to do that? With the bank you could be a branch manager in 20 years.” I’ve always considered that as the moment I escaped.
I suppose if I hadn’t got the job as a kiap, I might have wound up in Papua New Guinea as a bank johnny. This book makes me very glad that I didn’t.
Remember the bank johnnies? If this book is to be believed they came to PNG for two reasons, sex and booze.
Their stints were only short, usually two years, and then they were back home again. For the young blokes, and some girls too, it was a chance for an unfettered and exotic fling sowing wild oats before settling back into the oblivion of suburbia, marriage, mortgage, kids and all that sort of thing.
This is not a pleasant book - with its graphic grubbiness and language - but it is realistic. Although it is fiction, it also has an autobiographical feel about it and follows from an earlier book about misspent school days.
I suppose that if one is to expose a dissolute youth, fiction might be an attractive option. Then again, maybe it’s all made up.
It’s puzzling, however, why the author uses a fictitious setting called “the islands” when it is obviously Port Moresby and Goroka that he describes.
In fact, I could be tempted to make a stab at the real name of his “Colonial Bank of Australia”. Even a thinly disguised Meg Taylor has a part.
The Michael Somare character is totally unbelievable. Maybe the publisher’s lawyers advised caution.
The book is written in the style of a 1970s men’s magazine but without the interspersed coy nude “studies”. You know - lurid detail and smart arse repartee. There’s also a touch of Wake in Fright in there too.
The author freely admits to having been a bank johnny and says the book was hard to write. In this sense I guess he deserves some credit.
The casual and venal attitude of many Australian men to local girls and women during colonial times was appalling. I’m not sure it needs to be exposed now, but here it is. It certainly knocks the wind out of those who believe Australia did a good job in PNG.
For many men who were in PNG, the book will strike a raw nerve, and rightly so. For others it will simply induce a shrug and a smirk.
The author suggests that somehow those who didn’t engage in gin jockeying were racists, which is an interesting take on morality.
Of course many Australian women found Papua New Guinean men attractive too, but that has always been couched in terms of self-righteousness and anti-racism.
Drusilla Modjeska’s recent book, The Mountain, explores this theme. And, of course, many Papua New Guinean men still treat their women and girls in the same way.
The title of the book is a play on Randolph Stow’s considerably superior novel of 1958 To the Islands. What the connotation is, I’m not sure.
As I’ve hinted, I didn’t especially enjoy the book but it is definitely worth reading.